Often in the news for all the wrong reasons, there’s no doubt that North Korea is the world’s most mysterious country – the last truly unique travel adventure destination. The term ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ certainly applies here!
Without a doubt there’s plenty of reasons NOT to visit North Korea, but I think there are plenty of positive reasons to go too (situation permitting). For one, you’ll get an incredibly rare glimpse into the daily lives of the locals and with tourists visiting, it will encourage openness. You’ll see and hear the views of the North Koreans and show that Westerners are keen to visit and explore. It goes without saying that you must check your government’s travel advice and that of your tour operator prior to travel!
Explore DPRK’s capital city of Pyongyang
It’s estimated that less than 2,000 Westerners visit the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea each year, making this the very last place on earth to be touched by tourism.
It’s worth pointing out at this stage that there is no such thing as independent travel in North Korea. All trips have to be via an organised tour where you’ll be escorted by a guide at all times. You cannot simply leave your hotel to explore by yourself.
Your tour will start in the capital city of Pyongyang which is home to the world’s deepest metro system at 110 meters. Key sights include the third tallest monument in the world; the Juche Tower which stands at 170 meters (558 feet) tall. Built to honour Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday, the Juche Tower opened in 1982 and has a fantastic view over the city from the viewing deck. Other key sites in the city include the 20 meter tall statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il which are cast in bronze. All visitors are expected to dress appropriately and lay flowers at the statues. Pyongyang is home to the biggest victory arch in the world, with the Arch of Triumph, which is modelled on Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. Travellers can also visit the Children’s Palace, Grand people’s Study House, the massive Arch of Reunification (which is a monument to the goal of a reunified Korea) pictured above and the Mansudae Fountain Park and Monument. There is also the Kumsusan Memorial Palace where Kim Il Sung lies in state, although visits are incredible rare and by invitation only. It’s much like the mausoleums of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and Vladimir Lenin in Moscow, except on a much larger scale.
Catch a performance of the Mass Games for an unforgettable experience
The main highlight of a trip to North Korea is taking in a performance of the Arirang Festival, aka Mass Games, where 100,000 participants stage an extraordinary event. With synchronised gymnastics, acrobatics and dance, the Mass games have been held since 1961 in Pyongyang. The 90 minute show is a testament to human strength and endurance and is unlike anything you have ever seen before. The 2013 performances will be held from 22 July to 9 September 2013. It’s essential to pre-book your tickets before travelling.
Hike the Mysterious Fragrant Mountain of Myohyang
Mount Myohyangsan is the best hiking spot in North Korea. Dubbed the Mysterious Fragrant Mountain, this is a great opportunity to get back to nature. There are several designated hiking routes and again you’ll need a guide to escort you. The mountain is a UNESCO designated biosphere reserve as the remarkable cliffs are home to several threated plant species. In addition, travellers make the journey up Myohyang-san to visit the 11th century Pohyon temple and the Sangwon hermitage.
Witness Korea’s DMZ up close
To witness the stark reality of the current situation between North and South Korea, visit the Demilitarized Zone, aka DMZ, for yourself. Tourists are taken to Panmunjom, which remains the last outpost spanning some 4km (2.5miles) wide and 250km (160 miles) long. It goes without saying that visits are strictly controlled and are often shut down with little notice. Here you can also visit the Peace Museum and glimpse the Kijong-dong, aka ‘Propaganda Village’ which is a tall uninhabited apartment block.
Experience the Ullim Waterfall for yourself
Visit Wonsan on the eastern Donghae Coast area of the country to catch a glimpse of the scenic Ullim Waterfall. The falls have two major cascades and stand at 75 meters tall.
Travel Essentials for visiting North Korea
- Always, check your local government travel advice before heading to North Korea
- Choose a specialist tour operator that has experience of running trips specifically to North Korea.
- You must not explore independently – stay with your guide at all times.
- You will hear locals versions of events and whatever your views, you must respect theirs too.
- As the tourism infrastructure is undeveloped, visitors are recommended to take all toiletries and medicines with them.
- Do not take any items written in South Korean and do not take (or talk about) any anti-North Korean subjects.